For the second time in a decade, Portland voters will be asked if they want to form a charter commission to make wholesale changes to the basic structure of municipal government in Maine’s largest city.

Question A was put on the ballot by the City Council in response to a proposal by Fair Elections Portland to create a public financing program for local races. The proposal has since taken on more weight, as activists across the country push local, state and federal leaders to make fundamental changes to governing institutions to root out systemic racism.

In Portland, Black Lives Matter activists are, among other things, calling for the elimination of the city manager position – something that could be done only by reopening the charter.

Activist groups, including the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America and Progressive Portland, as well as at least one city councilor, are urging voters to approve the question. Most councilors vowed to oppose it in October when they put it on the ballot. But there has been no public campaign against it, though councilors last month defended City Manager Jon Jennings after BLM Portland called for his removal.

Flanked by members of the Portland City Council, Mayor Kate Snyder speaks outside City Hall on June 6 to defend City Manager Jon Jennings against protesters’ demands that he resign for his handling of racial and economic equality. Snyder plans to present a resolution at Monday’s council meeting that will outline steps to tackle systemic racism in Portland.  Rob Wolfe/Staff Writer

Anna Kellar, a spokesperson for Fair Vote Portland, said her group recently decided to support the creation of a charter commission, even though it was originally opposed to the idea and there is no guarantee that a clean elections program would result. The group still has an active lawsuit against the city pending before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and a victory there could mean their proposal for a local clean elections funding could go straight to voters, rather than having to go through a charter commission.

Kellar said her group now believes the commission would give everyone an opportunity to debate long-simmering concerns about the current governmental structure, including the positions of mayor and city manager; reforming the municipal budgeting process to give more control to residents, and increasing citizen oversight of police. The national uprising against the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police could increase the likelihood of systemic change in Portland, they said.

“We just feel like this is an unlooked for, but well-timed, opportunity to have that discussion about what structure of government will work best for everyone,” they said.

Mayor Kate Snyder said she will vote against Question A, because the city revised its charter through a similar process 10 years ago. Snyder said the charter commission process would require a great deal of time – the last commission took nearly two years to forward recommendations – and a significant commitment from the community and city officials, who would have to review the 37-page charter.

Snyder plans to present a resolution at Monday’s council meeting that will outline steps to tackle systemic racism in Portland.

“For me right now this resolution is the way for us in city government right now (to) begin this work.” Snyder said. “My hope is this resolution is the first step to help define our community’s vision with regard to systemic racism and it could be the vehicle that persists.”

Question A asks: Shall a Charter Commission be established for the purpose of revising the Municipal Charter?

If approved by voters on July 14, a 12-member charter commission would be formed. Three of the members would be appointed by the City Council, while the remaining nine would be elected like councilors – one from each of the city’s five voting districts and four at-large members. The group would then hold a series of meetings and public hearings to draft potential charter changes. Their recommendation would then go to voters for approval.

The last charter commission was formed in 2008. The result was the creation of a hybrid elected mayor position that has been blamed for ongoing tensions and conflict in City Hall. The change replaced a part-time mayor, chosen by fellow councilors for a one-year term, with a mayor elected to a four-year term by city voters. However, the mayor was not given the power to run the city’s daily operations. That job continues to lie with the city manager, a position created in Portland in 1923.

An additional proposal to extend voting rights to non-citizen residents was turned down by voters. That proposal has resurfaced in recent years, but hasn’t gone anywhere.

While many other communities are run by a professional manager rather than elected mayor, activists like BLM Portland say the position is inherently racist. They note that the city manager position was created in Portland in 1923 with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, which was worried about the rising influence of immigrant and other minority communities.

BLM Portland organizers Mariana Angelo, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef and Hawo Mohamed said in a joint statement to the Press Herald that the city manager form of government continues to serve the interests of the elite. They pointed to the ongoing gentrification of Portland and recent decisions to cut funding for public health and Jennings’ opposition to a $64 million bond to renovate four elementary schools in 2017 – a measure that voters approved.

They said the city’s top administrator should answer to voters, not councilors.

“The gap between the voter and accountability for Portland’s most powerful decision maker is too big,” they said. “Every time the city manager does something voters don’t like, there is no direct mechanism for accountability. This system strips Portland’s elected officials of sufficient power. Councilors and the ceremonial mayor lack the power to fire and hire city workers or propose a budget. We want a system that works for everyone, not just the few with privilege and power.”

While the commission proposal grew out of a desire to create a local clean elections program, state law does not allow a municipality to limit the scope of a charter review to a single issue – it opens up the entire form of government to systemic change.

Fair Elections Portland gathered more than 8,500 petition signatures last year seeking to put the public-campaign funding question on the November 2019 ballot.

The group argued that the proposal was a minor charter amendment that only needed to be approved in a citywide vote, rather than through a lengthy charter commission process. But they also included a provision in case the city disagreed and determined the change constituted a significant charter revision. If that happened, they wanted the city to ask voters to form a charter commission. But the petitions issued by the city did not include the charter commission language, which the clerk’s office said was an oversight.

City Attorney Danielle West-Chuhta decided that the proposal was significant enough to require a commission, since it required the council to fund the program annually. After receiving that opinion, the council reluctantly put the charter commission question on the ballot, even though it was not required to do so.

Fair Elections Portland sued the city and lost in Superior Court. An appeal before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is pending.

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said it’s too soon to form another charter commission. He said Jennings and Mayor Snyder, who took office in December, are showing that the charter, as drafted, can work if the individuals in each position are committed to cooperating. He also questioned the wisdom of launching a charter review during a pandemic, which has upended city budget projections for the year.

“These are huge cuts we’re talking about this year,” Thibodeau said. “If there’s a discussion (about the mayor and manager positions), I don’t think we’re ready to have it. And I don’t believe having it in the middle of a pandemic is good form either.”

City Councilor Pious Ali said he will support creating a charter commission to tweak the roles and responsibilities of the elected mayor and city manager and possibly give the school board more autonomy with its budget. Currently, the City Council sets the bottom line for school spending, though it lacks the authority to make line item adjustments.

“If (city government) is not working for you this is an opportunity for you to change it,” Ali said. “So let’s go out and vote and then have a conversation if it passes about what type of government we want to see in Portland.”

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